The Sarah Whitby Site

Color illustration of the Sarah Whitby House. The white, wooden house has two floors and a wooden fence to its right; the top floor is accessible via a staircase located in front of the house. African-Americans depicted doing chores and other tasks.
Artist's Reconstruction of the Sarah Whitby House.


Among the many African American families that moved to Washington were the Whitbys. In 1895 the Whitbys rented a house on a small parcel of land that had belonged to Isaac Shoemaker. According to the census, the family came from North Carolina. One part of the 1895 rental lists the family under the name Elijah Widby, but in the other part of the rental and in the 1900 census the family is headed by Sarah Whitby, probably Elijah's widow. According to the census, Sarah Whitby worked as a laundress. She had nine children, and although she was herself illiterate, all of her children could read. Because the property was small and included only one house, archeologists thought it gave them a good chance to find the home of an identifiable African American family.

Archeologists suspected that the Whitbys' house might be quite old. It was not small by the standards of the time, since it had two rooms and a stable, but its condition was listed as "poor" and it rented for the very small sum of $3 a month. Using the archeological evidence from the excavation of the cellar, the description of the house given in the rental ("tworoom"), and the DeLancey Gill drawings, an artist was able to reconstruct what the Whitby house may have looked like.

Yellow cautionary tape surrounds five archeologists excavating the Whitby Site.
Excavating at the Sarah Whitby Site.


After taking a close look at the five-acre property where the Whitbys' house should have been, archeologists noticed a depression in the ground close to a large walnut tree. They dug a small hole in the center of the depression. Underneath about half a foot of sod and recent fill they found bricks, corrugated roofing metal, and artifacts dating to around 1900. These finds encouraged them to go back to the site and do a larger dig.

A small square pit with stones inside and a stone foundation. This is the site of a Cellar hole found in the Whitby Cellar.
An Excavation Unit in Sarah Whitby's Cellar, Showing the Stone Floor.


Archeologists uncovered a cellar hole measuring about 10x12 feet, with stone foundations and a stone floor. More than 500 artifacts were found in the cellar. Most of the artifacts found in the cellar date to around 1900, but a few are older. These include two sherds of colonoware, a kind of pottery made by enslaved people before the Civil War.

The discovery of these types of artifacts confirmed the guess that the Whitbys' house was quite old. It may have been built as far back as the early 1800s, and it was probably occupied by African Americans for many decades.

Two rows of buttons found in the Whitby house cellar in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are chipped and damaged.
Some of the 52 Buttons Found in the Cellar of Sarah Whitby’s House.


One of the most interesting things about this collection was how many buttons were found: 52. It is very unusual to find so many buttons in such a small excavation, and the buttons may be related to Sarah Whitby's work as a laundress.

One of the buttons was inscribed "Saville Row," the street where London's finest tailors plied their trade. If this button really came from Saville Row, it shows that at least one of Sarah Whitby's clients was very well dressed indeed.

Part of a series of articles titled The Sarah Whitby Site and African-American History.

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Last updated: October 5, 2022